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Powered by Honda – The ’80s F1 Golden Era

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Honda has a storied history in the world of racing, be it with their own F1 project of the Sixties; their numerous successes in motorcycle racing, and of course their bountiful spell as an engine supplier in the golden age of Formula One. 

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1983: Honda Returns to F1

Honda ended a fifteen-year absence from the pinnacle of motorsport when in 1983 they returned as engine suppliers to a little known F2 outfit called Spirit. With their new engine suppliers, the plucky Brits made the Jump to F1 mid-way through 1983. Stefan Johansson was selected to drive the ill-fated 201C, in essence, a modified F2 chassis.

Despite the cars, apparent lack of pace Johansson achieved a best finish of seventh place at the attritional Dutch Grand Prix of 1983. He may have been a Lap down, but he held off much stronger machinery in the shape of Riccardo Patrese’s Brabham and Marc Surer’s Arrows.

The Spirit’s overachievement in Holland was the first inkling that the Honda V6 could be something truly special.

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– Jacques Laffite in a Williams FW09

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Spirit lost their engine deal, however. Honda’s power had been stolen from under them by none other than Frank Williams. The Williams outfit struggled on with Cosworth DFV power in the early days of the First Turbo Era, and while Williams held its own, with titles in 1980 and 1982.

It was ever more apparent that Turbo power was needed to be at the sharp end of the grid. Sir Frank brokered a deal that gave the FW09 a Honda F1 engine; it debuted at the final race of 1983 and instantly scored points with 5th for Keke Rosberg.

The FW09 suffered a misfired launch, being slated as ungainly and bloated. Despite the shortcomings in the chassis department Rosberg pulled a Victory out of the bag in Dallas.  For 1985 the FW10 made huge leaps and bounds; Nigel Mansell signed on to replace Jaques Laffite and went on to emphatic victories at Brands Hatch and Kyalami.

Rosberg also won twice and it was abundantly clear that it was only a matter of time until Honda would be winning titles for those they supplied.

1986: Constructors’ champions with Williams-Honda

Frank Dernie’s FW11 was nothing short of a masterpiece. Powered by the RA166E Twin-Turbocharged V6 engine the FW11 layed down 800 HP in race trim and over 1000 HP in Qualifying Boost. The chassis and aero bettered McLaren’s MP4/2C and as a result, Williams romped to the 1986 Constructors Championship.

Nigel Mansell’s driver’s championship hope famously ended with a shower of sparks when his tire exploded in Adelaide 19 laps from the end. Alain Prost’s Victory at that same race yanked the title away from Nelson Piquet.

Yet despite the loss of the Driver’s title, it was clear that Williams-Honda were unstoppable – they were 45 points clear of McLaren TAG in the constructors; an undeniably remarkable feat.

For 1987 it was business as usual for Williams. The perfected FW11B won 9 rounds that year. Mansell showed the raw pace of the gorgeous Canon liveried beast, winning 6 races. Piquet, on the other hand, showcased the core, title-winning characteristic of Honda F1 power. Complete reliability.

Over the course of 1987, Piquet failed to finish three times, and he didn’t start in Imola following a horrific shunt in qualifying. In the races he did finish he only missed the podium once. This unwavering consistency meant that Piquet claimed the title, beating out an injured Mansell who missed the last two races.

In the constructors Williams almost doubled McLaren’s points tally, underlining the total dominance of Williams – Powered by Honda.

Honda’s mercurial assent to the top of Formula One was courtesy of their unrivalled dedication to the development of a winning powerplant. As Nigel Mansell recalled of Honda’s development team during his time at Williams Honda “[They] were developing four to six totally different iterations of that year’s engine specification” in order to maximise potential engine performance that year.

1987: Team Lotus powered by honda

Lotus 99T – ©Wikimedia Commons

Honda F1 also began supplying Lotus for ‘87. They placed Satoru Nakajima alongside Ayrton Senna as part of Lotus’ deal for RA166E V6 Turbos. The 99T holds the distinction of being the last race-winning Lotus; with Senna occupying the top step of the podium in Monaco and Phoenix.

During 1987 Senna and the Honda engine team forged a strong working relationship. Senna’s unwavering will to win reflected strongly in Japanese culture and as such Honda and droves of Japanese Fans deified him. As such Honda elected to stay with Senna when he moved on from Lotus in 1988.

1988: The golden era with McLaren-Honda

Honda RA168E V6

McLaren Honda. A Legend. For ‘88 McLaren requisitioned Williams’ factory engine supply. The RA-168E V6 engine had to make do with a lower boost and fuel-flow limit but even with that, it gave huge power and monumental reliability. The MP4/3B test mule was the first McLaren to integrate Honda power. But for ‘88 the Honda heart only formed half of the legend.

As far as win percentage goes the McLaren MP4/4 remains the most successful car in F1 history, and it is arguably the greatest vehicle in racing history.

Steve Nichols and Gordon Murray revolutionised F1 design, sitting the driver lower; allowing the centre of gravity to creep down as well, thus improving the handling and aerodynamic characteristics.

So far ahead of its time was the MP4/4 that it won 15 of 16 races in 1988. It only lost out in Monza following Senna’s altercation with Jean-Louis Schlesser – ironically in the now Judd powered Williams. Ayrton Senna pipped Alain Prost to the driver’s title – thanks to the strange ‘best eleven results’ points system.

The constructor’s championship clearly outlined the unmatched dominance of McLaren that year. With 199 points McLaren gathered over three times the points of second-placed Ferrari.

Their Win tally and points record have only been equalled or beaten in seasons with more races and newer points systems. As far as win percentage goes the McLaren MP4/4 remains the most successful car in F1 history, and it is arguably the greatest vehicle in racing history.

For 1989 naturally aspirated engines were banned and in came perhaps the best Formula the sport has ever had. 3.5 Litre naturally aspirated engines of any configuration. Initially, Honda F1 elected to go with a V10 engine, the best compromise between a Lightweight, frugal V8, and a Thirsty, powerful V12. The RA109E was coupled with a Weismann 6 Speed Manual Gearbox and produced around 675 HP.

The gorgeous MP4/5 remained the class of the field, in all departments and as such it emphatically dominated the season, doubling the tally of Williams-Renault. 1989 is better remembered, however, for the complete implosion of relations between the two talismanic pilots of the McLaren.

Incidents and finger-pointing peppered McLarens season with the tension coming to a head at Suzuka. The famous collision between two legends of the sport signalled a ruined end to the championship. And the end of an era for McLaren. With Alain Prost leaving for Ferrari after promptly collecting his third world title.

For 1990 Gerhard Berger was brought in to harmonise the team. A solid driver who would pick up solid points finishes each weekend and who could win when the opportunity presented itself; but a driver that would not threaten Ayrton Senna. As such the RA100E powered MP4/5B proved, once again, to be the class of the field. Now with 690 HP the B derivation would win the title, again at Suzuka and again mired in controversy.

Senna’s first corner shunt with Prost signalled an early end to the title hunt, blame being apportioned squarely at Senna this time. Though his actions were seen as justifiable given Prost’s actions the previous year. Ferrari had caught up to the boys from Woking, particularly with their revolutionary 7-Speed sequential transmission, that had gotten reliable by 1990. Despite the increased challenge, McLaren Honda remained the most feared partners in F1.

1991 signalled a shift in rhetoric for McLaren Honda. The MP4/6 was no longer the fastest car on the field – Adrian Newey’s Williams FW14 held that honour. Furthermore, the new RA121E V12 was underpowered in testing and lacked the drivability of its V10 predecessor.

The V12 was refined by Berger and Senna in the pre-season so that by Race One in Phoenix the McLaren was kicking out 735 HP – 35 more than Williams’ Renault V10.

McLaren MP4/6 Honda V12

Will this massive sound be back to F1 someday?- McLaren MP4/6 Honda V12

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The FW14 may have been faster but Honda’s incredible reliability proved unbeatable. Senna won the opening four races on the bounce – including that oh so memorable victory in front of his home crowd in Brazil – stuck in Sixth gear during the closing stages of the race.

The FW14 had a mid-season resurgence but three further wins for Senna secured him his third and final title. Williams’ lack of reliability meant that they finished 14 points behind the team in red and white in the constructor’s championship. Incidentally, the MP4/6 holds the distinction of being the last F1 car equipped with a manual gearbox and the last equipped with a V12 engine to win a championship.

For 1992 the MP4/7A gained a Six-Speed sequential ‘box and the new RA-122E V12 – now with 740 HP. Despite the developments, the McLaren was blown out of the water by the Williams FW14B – complete with its active suspension.

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– Williams FW14B Active Suspension

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The passive McLaren couldn’t come close to the Williams on raw pace, and in the end, could only win when circumstances played into their hands. Five wins remained impressive, however, but as the MP4/4 had been in ‘88 the FW14B was just too far ahead of its time for anyone to compete with it.

After the disappointment of being ‘best of the rest’ in 1992 Honda pulled out; their decision undoubtedly influenced by the bursting of the asset bubble in Japan causing economic stagnation.

McLaren MP4/7A
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Almost as soon as Honda F1 had entered F1 they were gone once again; this time with the legacy of being one of the most successful engine suppliers in the sport history. In ten seasons of competition, Honda won 69 races. That gave them a conversion rate of 43%. This made Honda the most successful supplier of the decade.

For comparison Renault power fired Lotus, Williams and Renault themselves to 30 victories (19% conversion rate), Ferrari won 19 times (12% conversion rate). Honda still won more than the other winning manufacturers combined over that decade. Honda’s achievements have gone down in F1 folklore, and for good reason.

They were the best of the eighties. But are they the best of all time? Or is Cosworth greater, with the great equaliser that was the DFV. Perhaps Mercedes’ domination of the second Turbo Era is the most impressive. What do you think?

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